Balance and technique
It all hangs in the balance
Below you will find details of a series of exercises which, if done in sequence, will lead to improvements in balance and technique for both classic and skating. What follows are sequences from different roller ski training events, and I think that everyone could benefit from following them at least once per week as an alternative to either just 'normal' roller skiing or as an alternative to doing no roller skiing at all. Although the length of time you spend on each exercise will depend on the total time available, if you want to benefit especially from the balance exercises, I would recommend spending at least 10-15 minutes on each. If, as you progress through the sequences, things do not quite go as planned, don't worry about returning to an earlier stage in the sequence.
The examples given are just that: examples. You are perfectly entitled to introduce other exercises which are intended to work on your particular perceived weaknesses. I've worked on the basis of a one hour session, the idea being that you spend about 10 minutes on each exercise, although with perhaps more time spent on the later exercises and less on the earlier ones. On the other hand, if you really want to improve, especially balance, it's worth spending sufficient time so that you can feel an improvement. As in previous articles, we've recruited a top super-model to demonstrate each exercise.
Progression 1: Eliminate the slap and late kick in classic skiing
This first progression is designed to maximise glide on the leading foot during classic skiing, while at the same time curing the 'late kick' phenomenon, which is actually a symptom of bringing the rear foot down too quickly and too far back. Although there is a progression, it should not be assumed that the static balance exercises (which come at the beginning) are easier than the dynamic ones which come later. So it is also a progression in the use of equipment.
Step 1: Static balance. This series starts with a simple balance exercise, where you stand on one foot in the classic classic position (1). You should be able to hold this easily for one minute per leg. Then do the same with your eyes shut (where half a minute would be quite good (2)). It may be helpful to slightly bob up and down and even imagine that you are holding a pole vertically in front of you.
Step 2: Dynamic balance and simulated technique. In these two exercises, you jump from one leg to the other, in simulated diagonal stride, pushing off from a flat foot rather than off the toes, aiming to land and be stable in a good classic position (3). This is a balance exercise rather than a strength exercise, so don't jump too far. Wait until you are fully balanced before jumping again but, if you can achieve good balance quickly, the jumps can be more or less continuous. In the second exercise, you are stationary but jumping alternately from one leg to the other (4), the idea being that as soon as the recovering leg comes forward, the other leg starts to move backwards. This, and exercise 1, can also be done at home in the living room (or whichever room you prefer), and they are more challenging if done in bare feet.
Step 3: On roller skis. These two exercises repeat (1), (2) and (4) from above, but this time on roller skis and without poles. They are best done on grass, because at this stage you don't really want the skis to roll.
(5) (6) (7)
Step 4: On roller skis on tarmac. If you are relatively new to roller skiing, before starting these exercises it might be worth spending a few minutes just double poling on rollers, to get used to the balance and movement. The first exercise is simple scooting on one roller, where you are aiming to stay balanced as long as possible on the one roller (changing feet after a while of course), while also ensuring that the roller remains 'flat' (i.e. avoid turning the ankles inwards (8)). In exercise (9) you now have both rollers on, but are still using a scooting type action, the idea being to concentrate on balancing on the front foot. Although both of these exercises are primarily about dynamic balance, apart from the fact that you're scooting rather than skiing, try to retain balance positions which bear some relationship to a recognised skiing position (i.e. don't compromise on position simply to balance longer) and, if you want to use your arms, move them in a diagonal poling action. As a variant on these exercises, you could see how far you can go for a given number of scoots, or see how few scoots its takes to cover a set distance.
Step 5: Nearly there. If you've progressed through the previous exercises and are now fairly happy balancing on one roller for quite a long time, you are almost ready to demonstrate near perfect diagonal stride (if you're not yet comfortable on one roller, you can always go back to one of the earlier exercises). In (10), you do a normal diagonal kick but, on the recovery, lift the recovering leg so as not to set it down until it is ahead of the gliding ski. This is not proper skiing, the exercise is designed only to emphasis that you can balance on the front foot until the rear foot comes forward. Having achieved this, you are now able to bring everything together (11), by reverting to normal classical diagonal stride but, by bending the knee slightly on the recovering leg, you ensure that no weight is put on this recovering leg until the foot is at least level with the gliding foot (you can forget what the wheels are doing, because it makes no difference whether they are on the ground or not, as long as there is no weight on them). Happy with this? Good, you are now showing near perfect technique, and the last things to do is to finalise it.
Step 6: Remember exercise (4), where you tried to spend as little time as possible on two feet at the same time? You now try to do the same on rollers, the idea being that as soon as the recovery leg comes down (level with, if not slightly forward of, the gliding foot, remember), you immediately initiate the kick with what was the gliding ski. Think about a very quick hop between one ski and the other. There is one other thing worth thinking about here. Instead of imagining one leg kicking backwards, try to imagine the other leg, and the hips, being thrust forward. It can help if you think of the rear leg as being glued to the ground, allowing you to thrust everything forwards.
All the exercises on roller skis are about technique rather than, necessarily, speed or power. So don't, at this stage, put too much ooompf into it (this can come later). Now that you're fully happy this, all that remains is to introduce the poles (13). Got it? Excellent, you may progress directly to the next Olympics. Still not quite happy? Then go back to an earlier exercise and build up again.
Progression 2: Maximise glide in skating
This set of exercises is designed to get you to spend as long as possible on the gliding leg in skating, ensuring good weight transfer onto, and a good position on, this gliding leg.
Step 1: Static and dynamic balance. Similar to the classic exercises, here (1) you aim to balance, without skis, in the classic skating position, with and/or without your eyes shut. In the balance position, try to ensure that the leg on which you're balancing is vertical. Exercise (2) is also similar to the classic 'bounding' exercise above, although here you are jumping more from side to side, with only limited forward movement. It's a good idea, on landing, to bend the knee of the landing leg, to get you ready to spring back to the other side. As before, though, wait until you are well in balance before jumping again.
Step 2: Dynamic balance on skis. In exercise (3) (not shown), you do a variant of the scooting exercise above and, here, you use a marathon skate action to propel you (this allowing the roller on which you're gliding to go straight ahead). Try to concentrate on getting your gliding leg vertical, with the ski flat, this position coming from getting your hips and upper body over the gliding ski, not by turning your ankle. If, when doing this exercise, you find that you over-balance and have to put the scooting foot on the other side of the gliding ski, this is no bad thing, because it means that you have found, and slightly exceeded, your ultimate balance position.
For exercise (4) you now have both skis on (but no poles) and you're doing 'normal' skating. There are a number of things to concentrate on here, and it's worth spending some time on this one. Firstly, the gliding leg stays vertical (at least at first), and trying to put the incoming ski down on its outer edge should help in this. Secondly, do not lift the incoming leg but allow it more or less to simply 'fall' back in in a low arc, but making sure that it does not touch down until it is more or less touching the gliding foot. Finally, using not too powerful kicks, try to hold good balance as long as possible in the 'extended' position.
Step 3: (Now listen, yous mugs. It's damn difficult drawing stick insects doing skating (it's not that easy drawing them doing classic either, as the pictures above show). So the next picture is the last picture you get, and from now on you have to imagine it for yourselves. Get it?) Progressing nicely. In exercise (5), we give you something to do with your arms which forces you to spend more time on one ski. As you ski, simply bring your hands up and clap them in front of you, swinging them back again before making the next skate. This requires good rhyme and, like all the exercises, it is worth relaxing yourself, especially the upper body, by 'flopping' before you start. So you think you're looking pretty cool now? You've cracked this exercise easily? Very well then, smart-arse, let's see how good you really are. Do the same exercise but this time clapping both in front and behind between each skate! O.K., so you are pretty good at that too, but I bet you don't know half as much as I do about writing harmonised European Standards for construction products, so there! I ... er, sorry about that, I don't know what came over me. Moving on, in the next exercise you introduce poling but, to make it a bit more tricky, you do two pole pushes on each side, remembering that this is a balance exercise rather than a power exercise, and ensuring that you maintain a good body position and balance throughout. Cracked that? Then it's back to normal skating where you should find now that you're zooming along for much less effort. Easy-peasy.
If you're doing these drills as race training, at the end of each progression you might try doing your now top notch technique at near race pace but over a fairly short distance, say for a minute at a time. If it works out, excellent, but if it all rather falls to bits at this pace, then go back to an earlier stage in the progression and work up again. This should not be seen as 'failing' but as reinforcement, and it is just as important for the finished item for you to be able to perform the intermediate drills well. It may even be that, during a particular training session, you don't actually get as far as the final exercises.
It seems to me that most of these exercises, with a bit of modification, can also be used on snow as part of winter training. I believe that a number of British skiers are fitter, in absolute terms, than their skiing ability shows, but that they are often let down by technique. So instead of seeing every trip out on rollers or snow as a fitness building exercise, take some time doing progressions such as these as pure technique training, and see if you don't get faster or more efficient for precious little extra effort. One final word: a number of people complain that their boots don't give them enough ankle support. This, however, is missing the point. If you get the balance right, all of these exercises can be done wearing only ski shoes, and if you think that you need better supporting footwear, then work more on the balance exercises. Enjoy!